What makes for a good writing workshop? The answer is less complicated than you might think.
On this week’s episode Heinemann author and Classroom Essentials Series editor Katie Wood Ray spoke with Katherine Bomer and Corinne Arens, co-authors of A Teacher’s Guide to Writing Workshop Essentials, the latest book in the classroom essentials Series. They discuss how in the mad dash to switch to remote learning, teachers can feel overwhelmed looking for the best online tools to help them teach. While any resource is a welcome one in these uncertain times, Katherine and Corinne want to remind teachers of the core principles that make for a good writing workshop, that are always accessible to you no matter where you are: Time, Choice, and Response
Below is a full transcript of this episode.
Katie: Katherine and Corinne, good morning.
Corinne: Good morning.
Katherine: Good morning, Katie. How are you?
Katie: I'm good. I'm so excited to talk to you this morning about your newly released book in the Classroom Essential Series, A Teacher's Guide to Writing Workshop Essentials. Congratulations to you both on having it out in the world.
Corinne: Thank you.
Katherine: Thank you, Katie. Thank you so much for your guidance through the series, the Classroom Essential Series. We're at book number four.
Katie: Yeah. Which is very exciting. And of course it's March, 2020, and it's hard to ignore that your book is coming out being released into a pretty uncertain world for all of us, for teachers, for students and I don't think it's a world we could have imagined when we started this process, almost I think two years ago now. We first started talking about the idea of this book and working towards it, but as I've been revisiting the book in the past few days, I've been thinking a lot about how fitting it is for this time that we're in, because it seems to me like holding onto the two or three things we know for sure is like having an anchor when things seem so ... emotion all the time and you're just trying to hang on.
And that's really what this book feels like to me. It feels like it is an anchor in an uncertain time because it is so focused on what is really essential time choice response, which is actually part of the title too. I just realized I didn't say that. So I'm wondering if the two of you could talk a little bit about that too. Here, your book comes out in the middle of this unbelievable place we're in and how are you seeing it right now in the middle of all of this?
Katherine: May I just start to say that our thoughts are with everyone right now, everyone who's sheltering in place, we hope that you're feeling well and keeping safe with your loved ones. That's number one. We all know. And number two is I think Corinne and I have both talked several times in the last couple of weeks about how our book is really reminding us that less is more, keep it simple, all the things that we constantly hear and are told on self care websites and stuff, and yet now we're being sort of forced to slow down and keep it simple, and less is more. And so oddly, that feels like the book exactly addresses that.
Corinne: I couldn't agree more and I'm sheltered in place with my two children of whom I'm trying to mother and teach at the same time. And even though I have a background in education, it's really nice to have clarity to help guide me through this on just, like Katie said, I mean I think that beautiful metaphor of it being an anchor is really giving me solace with, I'm just literally inundated with online resources and then next cutest thing and best thing and how many times I should be clicking on this and that and the other for my children. And what they gravitate mostly to is when I just let them be and have them choose what they're working on in our now homeschool.
Katie: And it really, I mean I like your word simple, Katherine too, that it just really does make it simple. And growing particularly as a writer is just not that complicated, right? Let's talk a little bit about that. What is this simplicity? Talk a little bit about this time, choice and response. And particularly again in this moment of time and how in a way we're in the perfect time for teachers and parents and children to experience the power of that simplicity.
Katherine: Right. Well, so we must say that these words, time, choice and response, we did not make those words up theirs. Those are not ours. These are foundational principles of the writing workshop, the structure that goes back to the late '70s into the '80s founded on the work of Don Graves and Lucy Calkins and Donald Murray and on the many names to name, but those are the big three in my mind. Who formulated this structure around the question, what do writers need? So they researched children in classrooms. They asked professional writers, Donald Murray was a professional writer and a journalist, and they asked the question, what do writers need? And when they over and over and over noticed that the answers were, well, writers need some scheduled time and uninterrupted in order to focus on the task at hand. They needed to be able to write about what they want to write about.
I mean, most professional writers have absolute freedom of what to write about and how to write it and even what genre to write in. And they need obviously someone to read it. I mean, writing is difficult. And so if there's not someone at the other end of your project, it feels quite lonely and strenuous to be writing. So writers need to have to know that they're writing for someone, for readers or for an audience. And those are just foundational to this project of being a writer. And so that's how those are the foundations that we decided when we started this book was, let us take it back to that because classrooms and schools in the United States have gotten so complicated that it just feels like more and more curriculum gets complicated. And we wanted to bring it back to what do writers really need? Not more, more, more, but really just these three big ideas.
Katie: Right. And if you think about it right now, like Corinne, your kids at home, they're sitting there and you've got lots of time, right?
Corinne: Yes. Plenty of time right now.
Katie: You can respond, if they're not inside a program, they can choose whatever they want to write about. And it's actually just kind of a perfect setting to really explore what happens when kids have just time, choice and response, right?
Corinne: It absolutely is. And I also see teachers in their own work behind their computer screens. These three principles are also benefiting them. And some of them are struggling a bit in terms of how to use the time, which we see that within classroom with kids and we teach into that. Now I've got this time and how do I discipline myself within it to stay at the task at hand? But our teachers behind the screen, when you say that they're missing something, it's the response from the children that they're missing the most, which just reiterates just how important authentic, loving response is to us as human beings. No matter what our work.
Katie: Let me ask you two this. What's the simplest way to just invite children to write? What do you say to children to just, you don't need many supplies, I don't think. You don't even have to have a computer. You could just some paper, something to write with. If older kids have a computer, they could use it. But, how do you just invite kids to write? What does that sound like actually?
Katherine: Well, let's think about what that looks and sounds like in a classroom and let's think about what it looks and sounds like at home. So since, Corinne, since you are lucky, blessed to have two children and not only two children, but two children with an age spread. I know Corinne's children and I've actually taught both of them at the same time. And now Corinne is also teaching them at the same time. So, what it's like to have a five-year-old and a ... help me, 11?
Corinne: Almost 11. Yeah.
Katherine: Almost 11-year-old in one space. If you think about it through a sort of a teacher lens, you think, how could you possibly do that? I am a fifth grade teacher. I wouldn't know how to begin with a five-year-old, right? So why don't you talk into how you invite your kids who are these completely different ages into the writing world?
Corinne: Well, I love the word invite because that's exactly what it is. We offer up, in our home, we have just invitations to write. So whether those are scraps of paper, those are inviting, more inviting to my daughter right now because the world is her oyster. Whereas, Jude knows himself a little bit more as a writer. And so he leans more on his notebook and he loves to write about his cat. He's finding a lot of comfort in his cat. So whether that be a flip book poetry, but it's really just the invitation to discover and to spend time together. So I think, and now there's times that they RSVP, no. They say, "No, thank you."
And so then we teach into that. That you might not know yet what to write, but this is what I'm doing today. Do you want to join me? And so often they just do. Let's write a letter to grandma today. We have some stamps. Would you like to join me? Sure. So, thank you for that word of invitation, because I really do feel like that is so what it is.
Katherine: Well, good. Then let's just build on that word invitation because it is to me exactly the same in the classroom. So just picturing day one, first day of school, Ariel Johnson has a gorgeous tweet out this morning about what is the first ... what is the beginning of school going to look like again in August after all this? Are we going to desegregate data? Well, guess what? We can't because the tests, thank goodness, have been canceled. So instead, are we going to actually think about the actual human beings who are coming into our classrooms? I mean, please check out Ariel Johnson's tweet this morning and retweet it.
Katie: Yes, I saw it. It is so beautiful.
Katherine: So beautiful. So day one in a classroom and let's just picture August, 2020, and please, let's hope that we are all back to our jobs that we chose because we love to teach and we're back in our classrooms with human beings that we love. And we say, "Guess what? In this classroom this year you are going to be able to write and you're going to be able to write all kinds of things. We're going to write poetry, we're going to write plays, we're going to write essays, we're going to write podcasts. We don't even know yet what all we're going to write. It's whatever you want to write."
And here are all the materials you can choose from. I mean in the classroom does have the benefit, hopefully, of having more options. Even than maybe a home could have. All kinds of variety of paper and markers and paint and art supplies, and say, "What can we create together?" And this is where now the word trust comes into it because we have to trust that our children and when we're in the classroom, we may have anywhere from 18 to 30, depending on where you teach.
We have to trust that all those kids can go out into the classroom spaces and choose something to work with and something to write on and have something to write about. And Don Graves said famously, "Children will write if we let them." So again, trusting that if we just invite them and say, "What do you want to write about?" I don't know, anything. And please let me just insert here. While it may seem like an obvious thing to write about, what we're going through right now as a globe with the pandemic, I'm just not encouraged by thinking about writing about the pandemic. Like where were you? What did you do? How did you spend your time at home? I mean, that would be not necessarily what children want to think about or write about. So the invitation has to remain totally open ended. What do you want to write about? Anything you want to write about and then let's do it.
Katie: For some kids, maybe the invitation is also like, what do you want to make? With writing, I'm thinking about my nephew. I FaceTimed with my nephews yesterday evening and I've got a nephew who's in second grade and he's just taken off as a reader this past few months. And he loves graphic novels. That is his thing now. And we sit around when I'm with him, he reads them to me and we'd look up the authors online and read their bios and the whole idea of AJ, why don't you make a graphic novel? You've got plenty of time. Here's some paper, have at it. And the idea that kids could enter the club of people who make the kinds of things they like to read because, I mean, he's not always actually even encouraged to read, unfortunately, his graphic novels at school, but he devours them at home. But, why not make one right now? And so I think sometimes the making, I want to make one of those is a powerful invitation for kids too, because he loves to make stuff.
Katherine: Yes, that's a great reminder, especially for our youngest children. So questions often in Pre-K and kindergarten teacher's minds are, can my children write when they don't necessarily know letters and sounds? And we must give a big shout out to, yes you can. We have samples in our book, including one from Corinne's little daughter when she was four, right Corinne?
Katherine: Piece of writing where it has everything that we say writers have. Choice, intention, she knew exactly what she was doing. She labels parts of this creature that she's made. She knows that she's writing to someone. So the word make is very important to keep in mind with our youngest writers.
Katie: And one of the things that I wanted to comment on, which is kind of already come up, but you look at this book and the student writing it is stunning. It's gorgeous. And there's such a range of writing from very young children all the way up to very sophisticated essays that fifth graders have written. And some people may say, and you alluded to this earlier when you were talking about Corrine's kids and the difference in their ages, some people might think, how could a book really address these issues, K to five? But, it seems to me that your argument is that time, choice and response doesn't matter whether you're five or 55, that's what you need as a writer.
Corinne: Or 95.
Katie: Or 95. Yeah. So it really is an ageless sort of set of essentials, right? Well, that's what I fell in love with when I went teacher's College Reading and Writing Project as a student, Katie and I studied with Lucy Calkins, and I didn't at that point didn't know Lucy Calkins, I was going to get my degree in teaching English Literature. But I met Lucy Calkins and read The Art of Teaching Writing. And that was the book that just slayed me. Is that the correct ... played, it just, yes. Changed my life. And where she said, "This is how writers write and this is what writers need." And I was a writer. At the time I had already been a professional writer. And I said, "I didn't know you could bring the same things that I need as a grownup to the classroom, to children."
And so that changed everything and changed my whole career. So that it is exactly an ageless, these are ageless foundational concepts of time, choice, and response. Yes.
Corinne: And I would like to add to that to say that when Katherine, your life was changed and then you brought your life changing work to my district. And one of the most powerful things that we did throughout the past, what has it been seven or eight years now is our Summer Writing Institute where teachers are the students, they learn about the writing process, and we are breaking down the barriers of these feelings of I can't and I don't know how. So therefore, that's the subject area that gets shortchanged in my classroom, or I lean on other people to make decisions that I don't believe I can make myself.
And that has just absolutely transformed the writing instruction in our classrooms because teachers now have lived it, many of us that were in school at the same time, were not taught in this way. And so therefore this new learning has given us different tools to teach our kids. And the authenticity brings so much excitement and engagement and I just can't speak enough about that and the power that you've brought to our district. So, thank you for that.
Katherine: Well, thank you for having me. But yes, let me just say that back to the question, Katie, of how do we invite kids to write? There's nothing more alluring and authentic feeling than being an adult who is one who writes and can say to kids, "I'm a writer. You're all writers. Let's write together."
Katie: I'm just thinking about those summer Institute's you've invested so much time and energy into those and probably one of the biggest outcomes of that is that teachers really, when they have time, choice and response themselves as writers, they come to deeply understand how much those things matter, right?
Katherine: Exactly. Exactly. Yes. The teachers I've worked with in Blue Springs, it's the district in Missouri that Corinne is an instructional coach. They talk about this time in the summer Institute being their time, therapeutic. I mean, I won't go on with all the adjectives they've used to describe it, but it's just so moving to me to watch adult people who have not necessarily consider themselves writers before and now look forward to this time in the summer when they can have again that uninterrupted, they know what they're going to get now when they come, they're going to get uninterrupted time.
They're going to be able to talk to each other about their writing. And to me, when I confer with them about their writing and they're going to be able to choose what they want to write about and work through all the decisions that writers make, all the choices and decisions. We have a couple pages in the book that lists all the different kinds of choices and decisions that writers make in the course of a piece of writing. And they're kind of, wow. You look at it and you say, "My goodness, I hadn't even thought of that. That of course, that is what writers need to decide." So you can't know that unless you have done it. And so that is magical when teachers do their own writing and then show that to kids and talk from the place of I am one who writes and here's what I do.
Corinne: Yes. And they have such feelings of acceptance, which then allows them to take risks. And when I say they, I mean children and I mean adults, right? When you know that you're going to receive response that is beyond and deeper and more meaningful than a grade, it really, you crave that. We as humans, we crave to be heard and to know that we feel validated in whatever feelings that we're having. And that we have words to share with the world.
Katie: Partly what this is making me think about is that you've replicated sort of in your local area the powerful thing for many years that the National Writing Project has offered teachers, right? It's a very similar model.
Corinne: Absolutely. That's exactly it. That's it, yep.
Katie: That's been transformative for so many. It also gets me thinking about, some people may be interested in how, this is a first time co-authorship for the two of you. So some people may be interested in how this project came to be and how you came to work together. And it grew out of that collaboration, correct?
Katherine: Absolutely. We just, I mean, I can't say enough how blessed I am to have met Corinne Arens. she is extraordinarily brilliant and kind and funny and delightful and supportive.
Corinne: Gosh, you're making me blush, Katherine. Oh my gosh.
Katherine: But, for me to have worked in her district for a number of years was also a gift because that doesn't often happen in my life as an independent consultant. Isn't that the nature of education professional development where it's someone comes in for one day and teachers sit and listen to someone pontificating and then is supposed to turn into the classroom and make something happen. But instead in Corinne's district with the leadership of Dr. Annette Seago, Who believes in longterm professional development, this really visionary idea that it takes time and repeated practice. And so to be able to go back a number of times and to notice that here's a place where this magic work can happen. This coming back to these foundational concepts of time, choice and response is actually happening here and working. And we can see the success of it at over time. And then to know that Corinne is the one who is my sort of change agent, right?
As soon as I do get back on an airplane and come back home, Corinne is the one who turns it around in her district and is supporting all 13 elementary schools and more. And so out of all that work over time and the relationship that she and I built came this idea of this book. I mean after being, and also having the idea come up with you, Katie, of a possible book for the Classroom Essential Series. I said, "My goodness, out of everyone I know in the world, I couldn't have picked a more perfect person than Corinne Arens to be my coauthor."
And so it's really this working together, both of us taking constant notes about what's happening in her district, collecting writing samples from across these 13 elementary schools from a variety of contexts, K to five, for Pre-K to five, across the context of teachers and coaches, three different schools that we filmed for the videos in our book. And again, you can see the variety of contexts in the videos across K-five and most powerfully in the videos watching teachers and students in all kinds of contexts with all different kinds of teaching and learning styles. And so out of all that mix sort of building this collaborative project that ultimately became the book.
Katie: Yeah. And Corinne, I wanted to ask you, I can just imagine that it's so exciting to have this book that you can put in the hands, particularly of new teachers, early career teachers who you're shepherding into this work. But it occurred to me that this book has a lot to offer really experienced teachers too. And I wonder if you could talk a little bit about how you see this book supporting the teachers, teachers across a wide spectrum of experience with teaching writing.
Corinne: Thank you for that question, because I'm so excited and feel just re-energized with this certain chunk of teachers within my district that are like, "Thank goodness this is coming out so I can just get back to what I know, what my gut is telling me to be true about writing instruction and I can clear out some of this clutter." It's like emptying your cookies on your computer. It's getting back to that idea of fewer things. And Ellen Keen also worked in our district for a long time and I've learned so much of what I know about so many things from Ellen.
And one of the things she always said was a fewer things of great imports over a long period of time.
Katie: I like that.
Corinne: Yeah. And that's just seared into my heart. And this book honors that and it validates that and our teachers are craving that. There are more and more things put on their plates and more and more decisions to be made. And so I think that this resource just feels like coming back home to them. They get to honor those good instinctual gut feelings that teachers have. The great teachers you know in your heart what feels right for kids. But then to have something that validates those feelings, I think is going to be really refreshing and rejuvenating.
Learn more about The Teacher's Guide to Writing Workshop: Time, Choice, and Response at Heinemann.com
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Katherine Bomer, author of The Journey Is Everything, Hidden Gems, and Starting with What Students Do Best, is one of the field’s most gifted writers as well as one of its most gifted teachers of writing. In more than two decades of teaching and consulting, she has used her writers’ eye to focus on how craft isn’t just an instructional goal but an instructional tool that allows writers to grow well beyond the range of most publicly available assessments. An internationally-known consultant and frequent keynote speaker, Katherine began her consulting career with the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project. In addition to Writing a Life, she is the coauthor of the Heinemann title For a Better World (with Randy Bomer) and delivers on-site PD through Heinemann Professional Development Services.
A published poet and essayist, Katherine is also coauthor (with Lucy Calkins) of A Writer’s Shelf. She began over fifteen years ago as a professional developer with the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project. A classroom teacher for ten years, she now works with teachers in elementary and middle schools throughout the country. As a frequent speaker at conferences and institutes, she combines a teacher’s practical advice, a writer’s love of language, and a powerful plea for social justice.
Corinne Arens, Ed.D., is a district-level Instructional Coach for Writing in the Blue Spring School District, Blue Springs, Missouri. She is a teacher consultant for the Greater Kansas City Writing Project and has served on multiple state-level committees.
For many years as the author of bestselling Heinemann books such as About the Authors, Study Driven, Already Ready, and In Pictures and In Words, and as a member of Heinemann’s Professional Development Services, Katie Wood Ray gave teachers resources and PD that transformed writing instruction and helped children discover a lifelong love of writing.
In 2014, Katie “moved to the other side of the desk” and joined the dynamic team of editors at Heinemann where she works closely with authors to craft powerful professional books on a range of literacy topics. Katie is also the series editor for the new Classroom Essentials books from Heinemann. Tasked with bringing foundational, progressive practices to a new generation of teachers, Katie works to ensure that the sharp focus and enhanced design of each book best serve the content. She also teamed up with her longtime collaborator, Lisa Cleaveland, to write one of the first books in the series, A Teacher’s Guide to Getting Started with Beginning Writers.
You can find her on Twitter at @KatieWoodRay.